Articles related to CONCACAF 2006 WC qualifiers:
Preview Feb 18, 2004
Update Mar 4, 2004
Wrap-up Apr 12, 2004
Preview May 30, 2004
Wrap-up Jul 2, 2004
Preview Aug 9, 2004
Update Sep 20, 2004
Update Oct 26, 2004
Wrap-up Nov 30, 2004
Preview Feb 2, 2005
Update Feb 26, 2005
Update Apr 8, 2005
Update Jun 8, 2005
Update Aug 22, 2005
Update Sep 14, 2005
Wrap-up Oct 19, 2005
Preview Oct 29, 2005
Wrap-up Nov 19, 2005
Wrap-up: CONCACAF qualifiers, Round 2
by Peter Goldstein
It was the big experiment: CONCACAF's first interzonal preliminaries in more
than 30 years, and the first time the big teams would play minnows in the
knockout stage. How did it go? Quite well, actually. There was only one
embarrassment, Dominica-Mexico. And despite the bizarre draw, or perhaps
because of it, there were a number of competitive matchups, and plenty of
suspense. Several of the underdogs (Netherlands Antilles, Surinam, Cuba,
Haiti, Bermuda) played well enough to keep the outcome in doubt, and if in
the end there were no real upsets, it was nice to see the lesser teams get
their chance. Still, 11 out of the 12 seeded teams won (Barbados was the
only exception), and the semifinal cast of characters will be familiar. The
group stage starts in mid-August, and we'll be there with another preview;
here's a recap of the second round knockout action.
Mexico went into this series with uncharacteristic calm (of course, there
wasn't a chance they could lose). Ricardo LaVolpe closed the initial
training sessions to the press, but that was just reflex; in the days before
the first leg, he was relaxed and friendly, getting his pictures taken with
fans in San Antonio, joking with astonished newspapermen, generally having a
As everyone knew, the game was set for San Antonio because Dominica didn't
have a stadium available. But you heard it here first: next time they will.
That's because prime minister Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica (population
about 70,000) signed a deal with a slightly larger country known as the
People's Republic of China (population really really a lot). The Chinese
agreed to rebuild the Windsor Park stadium (plus some hospitals, roads, and
schools, but those don't matter), and all Dominica had to do was boot the
Taiwanese embassy out of the country and recognize the PRC as sole
representative of the Chinese people. Hey, no problem. As Skerrit very
properly reasoned, totalitarian governments come and go, but the World Cup
The opener was the very first international soccer game in the history of
San Antonio, and a raucous 37,000 showed up, four times the crowd for
USA-Grenada the week before. The throng was 99% pro-Mexican, no surprise.
But a few Dominican fans were spotted waving the hammer and sickle and
shouting "Crush the running dog lackey imperialist 3-5-2 with the total
football promulgated by our glorious Chairman!"
Mexico started three forwards, which frankly seemed unfair. Dominica
countered with zonal marking--they got the zonal part right, but not the
marking, and after a while the zonal part wasn't operating either. (One
Mexican paper described their football as "prehispanico," which means on the
level of the Aztecs and Mayans.) Mexico got 10, and probably could have had
twice that. But give Dominica credit; they played hard and fair for 90
minutes. Man of the match was veteran striker Francisco Palencia, who had
famously been left on the bench by Javier Aguirre during Mexico's 2002 World
Cup run. No doubt he'd rather have played against Italy than Dominica, but
granted a surprise recall by LaVolpe, he made the most of the opportunity.
As his teammates scored in bunches around him, he had three shots cleared
off the line, missed an open goal from 4 yards, and had a header
spectacularly saved by keeper Nathaniel Angol. Finally, with the score 9:0,
deep into second-half injury time, a Mexican shot deflected off a defender
and off the post, and there it was, spinning across the line in front of a
completely open goal. With the instinct of the great ones, Palencia caught
up when the ball was approximately 99.9999% over the line, and made no
A ten-goal win usually means a happy coach, but not in Mexico. The team had
played well, but LaVolpe was upset because the press had failed to
appreciate it. At first he refused to meet with them at the airport, then
called their questions "offensive." The highlight of the exchange came when
he challenged reporters to describe the formation he had used after sending
in some second-half substitutes. When one reporter responded "Um, aren't you
supposed to tell us?" LaVolpe stalked off.
The second game was back in Mexico, in Aguascalientes, where the fans held a
week-long fiesta. It was the first time the national team had ever played
there, so they took to the streets, serenaded the players, and crowded in to
watch the team practice. Children ooh'd and ahh'd over the much taller and
darker-skinned Dominicans. Everyone was having fun--except CONCACAF, who
decided that the field as laid out was exactly two centimeters too narrow.
Worse, the Mexican FA had failed to set aside special boxes for the
delegation. (Geez, get a life, people.)
Dominica promised to do better in the second game, but even a feng shui
expert and two truckloads of Moo Shu Pork wouldn't have been enough. The
final was 8:0 instead of 10:0, mainly because Angol made a few more
spectacular saves this time. LaVolpe did his usual share of grumbling--the
boys hadn't always executed well, they should have shot from outside the box
more, etc.--but at least he didn't go out of his way to humiliate anyone.
So it was left to the Dominicans to provide the proper perspective. To a man
they were happy with the experience. No Dominican team had ever dreamed of
traveling to Mexico and the USA before. Angol was particularly thrilled: he
had the autographed jersey of Mexican keeper Oscar "Conejo" Pérez, and was
going to give it to his son. Coach Don Leogal proclaimed that next time
around they'd come back to Mexico and play even better. How do you say
"Olé!" in Chinese?
The series with Grenada saw one of the most important milestones in American
soccer history. Earnie Stewart's 100th cap? Nope. The USA's first World Cup
tie against a country they had invaded? Nope. It's that Colorado Rapids,
with a match coming up against Kansas City, refused to release Pablo
Mastroeni for more than 3 days before the opener. As a result, coach Bruce
Arena left Mastroeni and three Kansas City players off the side. OUR VERY
FIRST club-country controversy!!!!
With America now a real football nation, thank you, it was left to Grenada
to provide the weirdness. A month before the game, the federation removed
coach Alister Debelotte--then reinstated him the next day. No explanation
was ever given, although the odds are it was because he couldn't tell his
players apart. See, when Grenada took the field for the first game, he had
put Nigel Bishop on the team sheet, but sent Everett Watts out on the field.
The Americans protested, and officials took 15 minutes to sort it out; they
finally decided to let Watts start, probably because they realized it
wouldn't make any difference. Or maybe they were confused by Grenada's
shirt-numbering system--having apparently just discovered the zero, they
seemed determined to make as much use of it as possible. Franklyn Baptiste's
uniform read "05" and Shalrie Joseph's read "08". What's up with that?
Grenada's strategy for the opener was to let the Yanks shoot, and get in the
way. The USA took 37 shots, and the ones that didn't fly wide somehow found
every part of the Grenadian anatomy. At one point, Ricky Charles, nominally
playing left wingback, made his way to the goal line and stopped shots from
Brian McBride and Claudio Reyna in rapid succession. What could have been an
epic rout wound up a simple 3:0, with the third goal coming only in
second-half injury time. One major positive for the USA: midfielder DaMarcus
Beasley, known for his speed, stamina, and utter inability to finish,
somehow managed two goals. On the other hand, Jovan Kirovski, known for his
utter inability to finish, utter inability to finish, and utter inability to
finish, got none. Oh, and P.S. George Weah was at the game.
Given the political history, we had wondered about the atmosphere for the
return leg. As it turned out, things were comfortable, even jolly, with
Grenadian and American fans mixing freely without apparent awkwardness.
Interest in the game was so strong they had moved it from the football
stadium to the cricket stadium, where more than 15,000 piled in to see the
action. The USA, having qualified for the upcoming International Cricket
Council's Champions Trophy (bet you didn't know that!), felt right at home.
Lucky the game wasn't cricket, though, because rain would have stopped play
long before tea. Not to mention that the wicket would have been a trifle
unplayable. The teams sloshed around awkwardly for 90 minutes, inexplicably
keeping the ball on the carpet and watching passes stop in the standing
water. The USA got two early goals sandwiched around a suspect Grenada PK,
and then sort of mailed it in. But the Spice Boyz showed some enterprising
attacking play, with Ricky Charles and Jason Roberts tossing a few yorkers
just to keep things interesting. A second yellow on Brian Benjamin in the
54th minute got Grenada down to 10 men, the visitors and then the home side
scored another goal each, and the game wound to a peaceful conclusion.
The weather aside, it had been a pleasant experience. The 0:3 scoreline in
the opener had flattered Grenada considerably, but the 2:3 here wasn't that
far out of line, and a one-goal loss was an excellent achievement for the
islanders. The USA was happy, too: they won, no one got hurt, and Beasley
scored another. Coaches Arena and Debellotte were seen on the sidelines
discussing the relative merits of Viv Richards and Brian Lara, and everyone
made a date to do this again sometime, leaving out the invasion if possible.
Bora Milutinovic's job had been in danger up until a week before the opener,
but all that changed when Honduras lost 0:4 to the USA. Now it was his life
that was in danger. The only question was how many bodyguards to hire and
what weaponry to use. Bora kept his cool, though, having cleverly made sure
the team pitched camp in Florida, far away from potential assassins.
Meanwhile, the Antilles decided to play it confident. Federation officials
predicted victory: the raucous Ergilio Hato Stadium crowd, the artificial
turf, the team's preparation, all meant an easy win. When the head of the FA
was asked why, with the second-leg game in Honduras on a Saturday, the team
wasn't scheduled to fly home until Monday, he replied: because they were
going to spend Sunday celebrating their victory!
As noted, one of the Antillean advantages was supposed to be the artificial
turf at Ergilio Hato. It looked pretty silly--sort of like fried corn meal
painted green--but didn't seem to have much effect on the game. It was the
Antillean pressure, and the considerable technical skills of players like
striker Brutil Hosé and midfielders Daniel Rijaard and Giovanni Franken,
that had Honduras in trouble. The Antilles had more than their share of the
play, and Bora was spotted on the sidelines with a laptop, furiously
researching countries that had no diplomatic ties with Honduras.
But what the Antilles didn't have was David Suazo. Suazo, 25, is the great
unknown CONCACAF star--playing for Cagliari in Serie B (Serie A next year),
where he's known as "King David," he's been far out of sight of the fans. In
the 2002 qualifiers, he was a very rough diamond: incredible speed on the
ball (one of his nicknames is "El Hijo del Viento," meaning "The Son of the
Wind"), but inconsistent technique and little tactical awareness. But with a
few years of European football under his belt, he's emerged as a complete
player. Against the Antilles he was magnificent, heading home the first goal
on a cross from fellow Serie B man Julio César "Rambo" de León, and doing it
all himself on the second, muscling a defender for a long ball, racing into
the box, and finishing into the far corner. As they say, different class.
But even with Suazo rampant, Honduras was lucky to get the win. Early in the
second half, down 0:1, Hosé hit the crossbar, then the post. Then, 7 minutes
after Suazo's second goal, with Honduras apparently in full control, the
defense let Hosé through, and he made it 2:1. And with only three minutes
left in regulation time, Hosé broke through again to get the equalizer--only
to see it disallowed for a very questionable offside. Even the Hondurans
thought the goal should have stood.
Having failed to win the last zillion games, Honduran fans were just happy
to finish on top, and the press gave Bora some breathing space--for about a
day and a half, that is, until the team got home. At the ensuing press
conference, the media went after him for leaving striker Carlos Pavón out of
the lineup, for choosing a poor assistant coach, for causing dissension
within the team, and even for spending too much on computer software. Bora
somehow held his temper--barely--but he must have wondered if the second
game could be moved to Manitoba.
As it turned out, he had no worries. Despite a waterlogged pitch, the home
side dominated from start to finish. Amado Guevara directed the attack
superbly and scored the opening goal, and Suazo was again unstoppable. King
David started the sequence on Guevara's goal, then scored the second himself
by blowing past the defense and neatly finishing his own rebound. In the
34th minute, he again left the defense for dead, and Eugene Martha had no
recourse but to bring him down, leaving the Antilles with 10 men. Finally,
in the second half, he overwhelmed the centerbacks and passed to Édgard
Alvarez for goal number three. With the game in the bag, Bora pointedly sent
Pavón on the field, and he scored the fourth.
After such a comprehensive victory, everyone was falling over themselves to
apologize. So Bora lapped it up for a week, and then, in consummate style,
thumbed his nose at the whole lot of them. First he called all the way from
Australia to say he probably wouldn't be back; a couple of days later, in
Mexico, he called again, then sent an e-mail to finish it off. Didn't meet
with anyone, didn't have to cross the border. Shame and embarrassment all
round in Honduras, and don't think for a moment Bora isn't enjoying it.
He'll land on his feet, of course; by my count, there are nearly 200
national teams he hasn't coached yet. My money's on someplace much safer
next time--like Iraq.
After months of watching the Netherlands Antilles stock up on foreign
players, Surinam finally decided to get in on the act. Except they didn't
quite have the hang of it. As anyone can tell you, the key to this
international football thing is to naturalize all the Brazilians you can
find, or bribe some European stars whose grandfathers once stopped off
during a round-the-world cruise to pick up some shaving cream. Yet with
Brazil their southern neighbor, and potential Davids, Kluiverts and Gullits
plying their trade all over the Old World, all Surinam could dredge up were
defender Dennis Baino (Belgian 3d division) and striker Dennis Purperhart
(Dutch 3d division, 35 years old!), both of whom had played for the side
At least they were adding players. Guatemala was subtracting them: four
members of the roster, including probable starting keeper Miguel Klee, were
suspended for failing to report on time to training camp. Hard to fault
them, really: they had just helped Coban Imperial win the Guatemalan
championship for the very first time, and decided to join their teammates
back home in celebration instead. Coach Ramón Maradiaga was generally
supported for his decision, but some wondered whether he'd have done it if
the players had been from one of the big clubs, like Municipal or
When the depleted squad got down to Paramaribo, they were greeted by a pitch
that had obviously been host to a hippopotamus convention. Brown, muddy,
drenched with rain, it was no place for the Guatemalan technical style. That
was good news for Surinam, who, unlike their Antillean neigbors, rely
primarily on power and pace. They repeatedly outmuscled the smaller
Guatemalans, and scored an early goal when Dwight Panka sped down the left
wing and crossed for Purperhart to stab home. Ricardo Trigueño, the
second-string keeper, had reacted slowly; Klee might have cut out the cross.
Guatemala kept their poise, though, and playmaker Gonzalo Romero figured out
that the ball was more dangerous in the air than on the ground. In the 36th
minute he chipped a neat pass to Dwight Pezzarossi, who headed it down at
the top of the area for Guillermo "El Pando" Ramírez to drive in. But that
was all they would get. In a vigorous but sloppy game--the best anyone could
manage under the conditions--Surinam had the better chances, and the
chapines were probably lucky to get out with a draw.
Despite the poor result, Guatemala were confident of winning the home leg,
and the atmosphere back home was pleasant enough. A mariachi band gave the
team a Fathers' Day serenade, and the players held a mock press conference
with 5-year-old kids asking the questions. (Judging from the transcript,
Guatemalan reporters had better watch their backs.) There was some bad
news--Romero was out with an injury--but some good news, too, because
striker Carlos "El Pescadito" Ruiz of Los Angeles Galaxy was finally
recovered from an ankle sprain, and ready to play.
As it turned out, both the good and bad news made a difference. In the 21st
minute El Pescadito did his cherry-picking thing, waiting at the back post
to head in a Nestor Martínez cross for the lead. But Surinam stayed in a
defensive shell, and without Romero, the home side had little creativity to
offer. Although they controlled the game, they were rarely convincing. At
halftime it was still 1:0, and the fans were getting impatient. In the
second half Guatemala created a few more chances, but didn't seem able to
finish--so in the 80th minute it was still 1:0, and now the fans were
whistling and booing. After all, a single mistake, a single Surinam goal,
and the series would be equal on aggregate. But finally Pezzarossi, who had
been the pick of the team all day, rammed one in for the clinching goal. Of
course Guatemala relaxed, and of course two minutes later Surinam put one on
the board themselves. Suddenly, with only 7 minutes left, another Surinam
goal and Guatemala would be out altogether. But in the 85th minute it was
Ruiz again, at the back post again, gathering one in after the keeper had
let the ball slip. Final 3:1, aggregate 4:2. At game's end, the spectators
cheered a little, and whistled a lot more.
Maradiaga was upset with the fans' response, but you could hardly blame
them. The FA remains supportive, partly because they know the FIFA
suspension left preparations well behind the rest of the region. Ruiz also
hasn't had much time with the squad, and needs to learn how to combine
better with Pezzarossi. On the whole, Guatemala didn't look bad, just not
quite sharp. So no panic yet. But the Group of Death is coming up, and
they'll have to be a lot more convincing to contend.
Canada-Belize was less a qualifying tie than a vacation. The Belizeans, with
no pressure on them at all, got a week in Canada and some cooler weather.
They also got the chance to play two full internationals, which was two more
than they had played in the past two years. Canada got an easy opponent,
plus the chance to play two full home internationals--which was two more
than they had played in the past three-and-a-half years. With the result
pretty much a foregone conclusion, everyone could have some fun.
That didn't stop Belize from taking the game seriously, of course. They
trained dutifully back home, won a friendly against a Guatemalan league
club, and made all the right noises about winning. True, they were without
their best player, Norman "Tilliman" Nuñez, who had declined the call-up,
perhaps hoping for a trip to Rio instead. But they had Garrincha on their
side--that's head coach Anthony "Garrincha" Adderley, a grocer in his day
job, presumably known for his "falling mangoes" free kicks.
As for Canada, they got all their players together without much fuss, played
a friendly at Wales (loss 0:1), and hunkered down for the games in Kingston.
That's Kingston, Ontario, by the way, as distinct from Kingston, Jamaica,
where the Reggae Boyz play, and Kingstown, St. Vincent and the Grenadines,
where SVG hangs out. (Can't we get the Queen equal time?) Kingston isn't
exactly a hotbed of the game, but there weren't many alternatives. Good
soccer sites are at a premium in Canada--although if they land the 2007 FIFA
U-20s, as expected, they're going to build a new stadium in Toronto.
For the opening leg, the weather was rainy, the pitch slippery, the crowd
smallish (8,245) but appreciative, and the score 4:0 to Canada. As with
USA-Grenada, it could have been a lot more: a couple of crossbars, the usual
quota of misses, etc. (The wire service story opener: "Muffing chances,
left, right, and centre...") The Canadian players were philosophical about
the whole thing, but of course they could afford to be. Coach Frank Yallop:
"We could have scored 10 goals, I'm not lying." (We believe you, Frank.) In
a phone interview with Keith Swift, reporter for Channel 7 Belize, the
Little Belizean Bird responded:
Swift: "Coach, I have also read of the Canadian players bragging that they could
have scored 10 goals."
Addereley: "Yes but they didn't talk about the ones that we could have scored too."
Swift:"And how many are those?"
Addereley: "Well we would have scored 2 or 3 goals and that would have reduced that 10.
It would have never been 10. But football is not about what you miss. It is
about what you scored."
Later he elaborated: "Nothing went wrong. In the first game I thought we got there prepared and
we were high spirited. What they did was put us in the change-off room and
they asked us to go out in what we call our practice uniform. We changed and
the sun was hot and we went inside to put on our game uniform. But by the
time we came out it was rainy and it was windy and cold. I don't know if
that affected the boys' minds."
And that's why he's a head coach.
For the second leg, the crowd was smaller (5,123) and the weather was
better. Yallop rested six of his starters, Adderley benched four of his own,
and the game turned out to be surprisingly tight. Belize played quite well,
keeping Canada scoreless until first-half injury time, when Tomas Radzinski
rifled one in. The game was very physical (the Canadians had bought shin
pads for Belize, so they figured they'd try them out), with cards of all
colors flying. But Dwayne De Rosario, kicked hard by the opposition all day,
came to the rescue, scoring twice and creating a third to produce another
4:0. Now it was the players' turn to make excuses:
Charlie Slusher: "At one point it seemed like our players just lost sight of the whole game
plan and stuff like that. I think that was the main reason why it was
difficult for us to get a goal or even have a fighting chance of winning the
Robert Muschamp, Captain: "We faced some problems out there that I really wouldn't want to mention at
this point...I think that if everybody had gone there with one mindset, I
think it could have probably been a different result."
Or maybe if they had played with 22 men instead of 11. Oh, well, vacation
over, back to work. Canada goes into the cauldron, and Belize tries to
rebuild a program shattered by internal disputes. My advice is to get a home
game next time--I'm sure Beijing can use another vote.
Dominican Republic-Trinidad & Tobago
I'm a CONCACAF fan. I know the difference between Aruba and Anguilla, I
don't laugh when the Gold Cup is mentioned, and given the choice of
France-England live or Netherlands Antilles-Honduras tape delay, I
unhesitatingly choose the latter. Give me a team from the Confederation Of
North And Central America And Caribbean Association Football, and I'll
But--isn't there something we can do about Trinidad & Tobago? Like send them
to Oceania, or something? Look, these guys lost by three goals to Scotland.
Nobody loses by three goals to Scotland. San Marino doesn't lose by three
goals to Scotland. (Well, actually, they do--it was 0:4 last time out. But
the previous time it was 0:2.) And then, back home no less, they lost by
three goals to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, who last scored three
goals during the reign of William and Mary. Albania would wipe the floor
with these guys. So would Lesotho. I can't even imagine what would happen if
they played Solomon Islands.
Fortunately for T&T, though, their next opponent was Dominican Republic, and
even T&T couldn't lose by three goals to DR. With a mere 1500 Dominicans in
attendance, the Soca Warriors looked bad but still dominated the action, and
somehow managed a goal off a corner in the 62nd minute. They didn't score
the second until minute 90, and got out with a 2:0 win when an injury-time
Dominican shot hit the post. After the previous embarassments, no one was
complaining, even when they found their hotel rooms had been burglarized.
They weren't even complaining in the Dominican Republic. They knew they had
been overmatched, and were happy to lose by only two. Besides, they were too
busy gushing about keeper Junior Mejia and midfielder Vicente Espinal. Mejia
plays with Firpo of El Salvador, and on his form against T&T was declared
the best keeper in the history of DR. Espinal's story is even better:
Dominican born, he moved to Italy with his family when he was 10, took up
football, was signed by Atalanta, and actually played a few games in Serie
A. Now 22, he's on loan to Palazzola in the depths of Serie C2, but for the
proud Dominicans it might as well be AC Milan. He wasn't called up for the
game--he just happened to be visiting on vacation--but he gladly suited up,
winning a place in the hearts of quisqueyanos everywhere.
The only question for the second game was how badly T&T would play. The
answer: pretty badly, at least in the first half. In fact, DR should have
taken the lead in the 17th minute when a PK was awarded for a foul on
striker Omar Zapata. But keeper Clayton Ince dove to his right and saved the
penalty, and that was pretty much it for the Republic. So it was left to the
fans to watch the Soca Warriors miss chance after chance, and to wonder
whether they could get Tonga on the schedule. But in the 48th minute, Jason
Scotland, one of the worst offenders, finally got T&T on the board.
Energized, or maybe just waking out of their stupor, they scored three more,
putting everyone out of their misery.
Right now T&T football looks so hopeless that we'll mention some encouraging
signs just to keep things balanced. Denzil Theobald scored on a beautiful
volley in the second leg. Youngster Brent Rahim looks like a fixture on the
right of midfield, and Marlon Rojas is ready to claim the left back spot.
Keeper looks solid, with Ince and Shaka Hislop. But let's face it, right now
it's just not happening, and T&Ters can be thankful that their toughest
rival for the Hexagonal is St. Kitts & Nevis. If they can't make the grade
even then, it's time for Guam and the Maldives.
Last time we reported that coach Steve Sampson, despite indifferent results,
was still getting support from the press. But when Costa Rica barely escaped
with a 2:2 draw at Cuba, the knives were officially out--and with good
The problems started a week before the game, when sweeper Mauricio Wright,
one of the 2002 WC standouts, left the team. Whether he quit or was thrown
off was never quite explained, but obviously there was some major dispute
with Sampson. (USA fans will need no reminding that Sampson kicked captain
John Harkes off the team for insubordination not long before the 1998 WC in
To make matters worse, with Wright absent, Sampson suddenly decided to
switch from a 3-man back line to a 4-man back line. (Again, USA supporters
will recall the infamous 3-6-1 unveiled not long before the 1998 World Cup.)
Now, I'm no tactical genius, but I've followed Costa Rican football for a
while now, and this team doesn't play well with four at the back. That's
just not their system. In the 2002 qualifying cycle, they struggled for
months with a 4-man back line under coach Gilson Nunes--when he was fired,
and Alexandre Guiamares restored the usual 3-man line, they went on a
rampage. Sampson not only put four at the back, he also started two
defensive midfielders. Costa Ricans cannot play with two defensive
midfielders. They prefer two wing midfielders and at most one holding
player. Against Cuba, in a 4-2-3-1, then a 4-4-2, they had no cohesion
whatsoever. Although they managed goals on a set piece and a defensive
giveaway, they were outplayed all over the field, and only a brilliant game
by keeper Ricardo González kept them from an embarrassing defeat.
The key man for Cuba, as always, was striker Lester Moré, who drew a penalty
and converted it, then headed in the second goal for good measure.
"Moregol," as he is known in Cuba, is a tall, skilled, intelligent attacker,
who could probably play for any club in North America, and maybe a few in
Europe. He's kept at home by the Castro policy, but any serious CONCACAF fan
can tell you how good he is. Sampson, incredibly, expressed surprise at how
well Moré played. Uh, Steve, you've been scouting the opposition, haven't
Training for the second game began in a crisis atmosphere. Sampson blamed
the long league season for leaving him with tired players and insufficient
training time. He had a point--club/country battles are a long-term problem
in Costa Rica--but no one was going to let him off the hook. José Francisco
Porras, third-choice keeper, was furious at not even making the substitutes
bench in the opening leg, and followed Wright off the team. Then Sampson
announced he was going to keep the senior members out of the Copa America,
leaving the team to rely on the U-23's. This upset Rodrigo Kenton, the youth
coach, who wanted his charges fresh for the Olympics. The tension grew every
day. It was hard to imagine losing to Cuba at home, but the way things were
going you never knew...
Sampson went back to the standard 3-5-2 with one defensive midfielder, and
Costa Rica started the return leg strongly. Walter Centeno was playmaking in
the middle, Try Bennett looked good on the right wing, and the side was
dominating play. But the energy faded quickly, and before long Costa Rica
were, humiliatingly, thrust back on defense. On the half hour they managed a
goal on a counterattack, a long ball from defender Gilberto Martínez leading
to a strike by Ronald Gómez. But that was the signal for Cuba to step it up:
they controlled the rest of the half, and got the equalizer when Alain
Cervantes took a long ball from Pedro Faiffe and beat González.
At this point a lot of observers would have bet on a Cuban victory. But
somehow the ticos regrouped and took control. They had most of the play in
the second half, and held Moré in check. But their attack was intermittent,
their finishing nonexistent, their spirit lost. With a final score of 1:1,
they qualified for the second round via away goals, "the route of shame," as
one paper put it. After the game, one reporter asked the head of the FA how
much it would cost to buy out Sampson's contract.
Well, somebody knows the answer. Two days later Sampson was, to put it
charitably, let go. He responded calmly: he had done a professional job, he
didn't think the problems were his fault, he understood the decision. He
also said he'd hang around Costa Rica for a couple of weeks, which didn't
seem like a good idea. The new coach, by the way, is Jorge Luis Pinto, a
Colombian who won two Costa Rican league titles with Alajualense--where he
played four at the back. Watch closely.
Speaking of coaches, let's say a word for the guy from Peru, the oddly-named
Miguel Company, who has brought the Cubans so far. Back in the 1998 Gold
Cup, Cuba lost to Costa Rica 2:7. In the 2003 Gold Cup, under Company, it
was only 0:3, and the game was a lot closer than that. And now 3:3 on
aggregate. That's a magnificent result, and though Cuba's not ready to win
the Gold Cup yet, you can only wonder what might have happened if the draw
had been fairer. Company's place is set, if he wants to keep it; if not,
we'll follow his future career with interest.
If ever a team had the motivation to win, it was Haiti. On the road for
months, compelled to watch from afar as violence and flooding ravaged their
country, their series with Jamaica was as good as a World Cup Final. Right
back Stephane Guillaume had the quote of the year: "I don't care if I lose
both eyes and my legs to make it happen." Before the opener it looked like Jamaica might lose a few eyes and legs
themselves. First Tyrone Marshall went out injured, followed by Ian
Goodison, so the team had only two healthy centerbacks. Theodore Whitmore,
Andy Williams, Ricardo Gardner, and Ricardo Fuller, all potential starters,
were nursing injuries of varying degrees. With striker Onandi Lowe left off
because of UK drug charges, the side was dangerously shorthanded. In the
last days the medical worries eased a bit, but Goodison, Gardner, and
Fuller, all of whom would start, were still less than 100%.
Jamaica had plenty more reasons to be wary. Haiti would be inspired, and
would get strong support from the Florida crowd. And the Reggae Boyz don't
travel well. Although they had beaten both Uruguay and Venezuela at home,
when they went to England for the Unity Cup, they lost to Nigeria and
Ireland, no goals scored in two games. And so, acting on a football coach's
most ancient instinct, Carl Brown decided to play it safe. He went with a
5-3-2, with what amounted to three defensive midfielders: Micah Hyde, Fabian
Davis, and Gardner. Left on the bench were more attacking options, such as
Whitmore, Williams, and Jermaine Johnson.
Their fears appeared to be justified only 30 seconds into the game, when
Haitian striker Jean-Phillipe Peguéro was awarded a penalty. "Très juste,"
commented the Haitian press. "Cheat," said keeper Donovan Ricketts. But
Corriolan Wadson blasted the PK over the bar, and the teams were still
level. The game was difficult, physical, hotly contested, with the Haitians
using midfield pressure to keep the upper hand. Jean-Michel Boucicault was
looking dangerous on Haiti's right wing, and Wadson was the main ball-winner
in the middle. But they created few chances, and it was Jamaica, against
the run of play, scoring on a 39th-minute Marlon King volley. Haiti kept the
pressure on in the second half, and got their reward when Peguéro drew
another penalty (less controversial this time), stepping up himself to level
the score. Jamaica was nervous--at one point Ricketts and Goodison got badly
tangled, and handed Peguéro an open shot. But he missed, and like the rest
of his teammates, lacked the cutting edge on the night. At full-time it was
Neither side was satisfied. Haiti had needed a win before going to Kingston;
Jamaica was theoretically OK with a draw, but knew they had played badly.
The press pushed Brown on his tactics, asking if the defensive lineup had
hurt the team's approach play. He answered lucidly: "I'm not certain that I
could look at you and point to any one reason this wasn't happening because
it is something that we worked on pretty hard all week but we have seen with
these basic set of players in the three games that we've played here that we
had that going, that we have been moving out of defence into attack or
vice-versa. We really have to look at everything that surrounded this game.
The expectations of Jamaicans both home and abroad probably was the biggest
factor for our performance." Huh?
With the return leg coming up, Jamaica held all the cards. They had a draw
and a road goal, and were back home in the "The Office," where they were
almost unbeatable. The week between games had allowed some injuries to heal
as well. So Brown shifted gears and went on the attack: a 4-4-2 with both
Whitmore and Williams in midfield, and hot striker Damani Ralph joining
Marlon King up front. What did Haiti have? Just their courage, their will,
and the support of all the neutrals in the world.
It was over very quickly. King scored in the 4th, 14th, and 31st minute
(FIFA has the second goal as an own goal), and the Reggae Boyz eased home.
In retrospect, Brown's tactics had done the job. And let's face it: Haiti
had the desire, but Jamaica had the weapons, and aggregate 4:1 was about
what might have been predicted beforehand. Haiti coach Fernando Clavijo,
Uruguay-born, USA-bred, was gracious in defeat, and Haitian fans all over
the world saluted his effort on behalf of their homeland. A few of the
players will go to their foreign clubs; some may try to stay in the USA.
Most will go home. Let's hope for the best-case scenario: a stable
government, quiet streets, and the local championnat starting up again as
soon as possible.
El Salvador aproached the Bermuda series with something like dread. There
was no way to win, really--a loss to the islanders would be devastating,
anything less than a decisive victory would be seen as failure. Fans were
turning their backs on the team, and problems with the starting eleven
weren't helping. Striker Ronald Cerritos (DC United) was unhappy with the
FA, and coach Juan Ramón Paredes didn't seem to want him anyway.
First-choice keeper Juan José Gómez was out with an injury. And 24 hours
before the game, the coach still hadn't decided on his strikers; Rudis
"Rudy" Corrales, the most talented of all, hadn't scored for the side in
ages, and no one knew whether he belonged in the lineup.
With their best team in ages, Bermuda should have been sky-high, but things
were going badly there too. For one thing, it looked as if the youth squads
would be withdrawn from upcoming tournaments for lack of practice space. And
despite the senior squad's unprecedented success, sponsors still weren't
ponying up for the team. Then it looked as if Bermuda might lose the second
leg altogether--amazingly, the FA had failed to ensure sufficient hotel
space for the Salvadorans, and there was talk about moving the game to the
USA. Sports Minister Dale Butler was furious, coach Kenny Thompson was
anxious, and the whole nation seemed to be embarrassed. Travel schedules
were eventually rearranged, and the home leg was saved, but nerves were
The opening leg in El Salvador was high drama. The stadium was less than
one-quarter full, and the fans came ready to whistle. Paredes decided to
gamble on Corrales, pairing him with José "Chepe" Martínez. They got a dream
start when only 13 minutes in, Martínez connected on a cross from playmaker
Ernesto Góchez. But Bermuda refused to lie down, and El Salvador's problems
started to take their toll. In the 29th minute, Stanton Lewis sent in a
cross, and second-string keeper Santos Rivera came out late; John Barry
Nusum headed in, and the game was tied. And Corrales started to miss
opportunities. With the home side dominant, time and again he had the ball
on his feet or his head with a chance to score, but he couldn't get it in
the net. Luckily, Bermuda's problems were even worse: first Nusum, then star
Shaun Goater had to come off with injuries. All they had left was a
rearguard action--but it was dogged and it was enough. El Salvador got one
more, on a header by defender Victor Velázquez off a corner, but that was
all. The home side was booed off the field, and Bermuda went home down only
1:2, with a chance to win it.
El Salvador got one piece of good news for the second leg--Gómez would be
back in goal. Everything else was a disaster. Flu hit the camp hard: several
players were subpar, and defender Marvin González didn't even make the trip.
But he could count himself lucky. Because of the Bermuda hotel shortage, the
team had to fly through Miami for a night in New York City, and flight and
passport delays turned the trip into a marathon. Arriving in NYC at 10:30 at
night, they had to get up at 4 in the morning to catch the flight to
Bermuda, where they would have only one night's stay. By their own
admission, they were exhausted.
But Bermuda couldn't catch a break either. Goater was definitely out for the
second game; so was another pro striker, Kyle Lightbourne. And the hotel
shortage got them too--after a long search, they wound up staying in
Willowbank, a Christian hotel without a bar. "This should hardly bother
Bermuda's players," commented the Royal Gazette, "as alcohol is surely one
of the last things on their minds at present." Care to bet on that?
The atmosphere in Hamilton was electric, with fans overflowing the 4500-seat
stadium--and only four minutes in they went wild, when the Caymanese referee
awarded Bermuda a doubtful PK for a push in the box. Shannon Burgess
converted, and if somehow the score could stay the same, Bermuda would go
through. But El Salvador finally got a break themselves: in the 19th minute,
Alfredo Pacheco's free kick deflected off the wall, leaving keeper Timmy
Back and forth: only two minutes later the home side was ahead again, on a
Nusum header off a cross. And now the tide seemed to turn toward Bermuda.
They were running the Central Americans ragged, dominating midfield, every
bit ready to secure an historic victory. But football is, and always will
be, the cruelest game. In the 40th minute, a rare El Salvador chance found
Corrales, against all odds in the lineup again, in good position in the box.
The cross came through, Corrales dove to head into goal--and Bermuda captain
Kentoine Jennings, standing on the line, instinctively stuck out his arm.
Red card, penalty converted, and the game was over. Bermuda, down to 10 men,
needed two goals, and although they gave it their all, never looked like
winning. Jennings was inconsolable after the game. It was a bittersweet end
to what had been a magnificent campaign. Bermudians can only hope sponsors
and government reward the achievement, and give the side the support it
deserves in future competitions.
As for El Salvador, they had survived, and that was enough, for the moment.
It's a young team--too young, say the critics, who want Paredes to call in
some veteran players--and the experience can only help them mature. But the
Hexagonal? With USA, Jamaica, and an improved Panama in the way, best not to
think about it just yet.
When the draw was announced, this looked like a matchup with upset
possibilities. Panama, the lesser Central American side; St. Lucia, the
strong Caribbean side. If things went poorly for the one team and well for
the other, we could have ourselves another El Salvador-Bermuda.
Except things can also go in the opposite direction--and boy, did they ever.
With Colombian coach José "Cheché" Hernández pulling the strings, Panama had
an excellent runup: good results in friendlies, all the overseas pros
available, no serious injuries. St. Lucia had--well, something else.
To start off, the FA went into freefall. As we mentioned last time, league
competition had already been suspended, and key offices were vacant. Then
things got worse. A vote of no confidence asked the executive council to
step down--but the council refused to, arguing that the vote had been unduly
influenced. Several affiliates then ordered their members not to recognize
any directives from the federation. The FA president, Mark Louis, was
hanging to power tightly, with everyone around calling for his resignation.
Rough stuff--but it wouldn't have mattered if it hadn't affected the team on
the field. In large countries, with a self-perpetuating football
infrastructure, FA disputes don't seriously damage the national side. But in
a place like St. Lucia, when infighting supplants development, you're one
step away from collapse. Technical director Kingsley Armstrong had submitted
a clear plan of preparation, including warmup matches and training
schedules, but the FA did basically nothing. St. Lucia was limited to one
friendly (an 0:2 loss at Grenada), and had to practice on substandard
fields. Things were teetering on the brink...
Then, five days before the first match, tragicomedy struck. The team had
scheduled a friendly at the national stadium against a league select XI.
When the players arrived at the stadium, they found themselves locked
out--the FA hadn't paid the rental fee. Two of the overseas pros offered to
pay out of their own pocket; after protracted phone conversations, the
players were allowed in without cash up front. But since the stadium had
been shut, the coach, players, and assembled press had to put up the goal
posts and nets themselves. The game finally started two hours late, to an
empty stadium. OK, just roll with the punches--then just before halftime,
Trinidad-based pro Valencius Joseph, one of the most important players on
the team, collided with the opposing keeper and broke his leg. The match was
called off and everyone went home. The FA refused to comment.
So it was a shattered team that traveled to Panama, and the result was
predictable. Julio César Dely Valdés ("Panagol") got the first in the 5th
minute, and he was followed on the scoresheet by Luís "El Matador" Tejada,
Ricardo "El Patón" Phillips, and Roberto "El Bombardero" Brown. At least no
one fell in the canal.
By all accounts St. Lucia had played decently in the second half, so
although the tie was just about settled, there were some hopes for the
second leg. They added a new player, David "Bolo" Flavius, who plays in the
USA's third division. They made sure the stadium would be open. And no one
broke any limbs in the interim.
Alas, it wasn't enough. Panama had the class, and despite a lively effort
and a supportive crowd, St. Lucia never got on the board. El Matador stuck
in his sword in the 14th minute, and Panagol got the clincher in the 88th.
The third and final goal came in the 90th minute, on a long shot by Alberto
Blanco. How long was it? The reporter from the St. Lucia Star described it
as "a superb left-foot volley from 50 yards outside the penalty box." Hey,
if you say so.
Panama now moves on to challenge USA, Jamaica, and El Salvador, and St.
Lucia goes back to chaos. How the FA thing will turn out is anybody's guess,
but my money's on Mark Louis. That's because he traveled to France for the
FIFA centennial congress, where he met with your friend and mine, CONCACAF
president Jack "Power Is Fun" Warner. Expect the Mark Louis Center of
Football Excellence to be dedicated any day now.
Barbados-St. Kitts & Nevis
For the small Caribbean sides, a few-foreign based players can make a huge
difference. In the preview for this round, I reported that Barbados had
achieved their surprising ascent with an entirely home-based squad. Not so,
said a Bigsoccer.com poster, and he was right. In fact, while Barbados used
their home players in the first three rounds of the 2002 qualifiers, they
added a few from England and Ireland for the semifinal games, including the
famous 2:1 win over Costa Rica. After the WCQ, though, they went back to
their home squad; earlier this spring, as a matter of fact, they were
pointedly refusing to call on several players in Ireland.
But someone got the message, because literally the same day as the preview
appeared online (thanks, guys), Barbados announced they were going foreign.
First they found Mark Boyce, a fullback from Yeovil. Then, only a few days
before the match, they made the big swoop: Paul Ifill, midfielder/striker
for Milwall, an FA Cup finalist! They even hired a foreign technical
director, Reinhard Fabisch. And FA head Ronald Jones announced that
immigration was working to get even more UK players into the fold.
But St. Kitts & Nevis had already bulked up, adding the Posh Trio, Callum
Willock, Sagi Burton, and Adam Newton, all of whom started in the opener.
(How do you think Ian "Rumpie" Lake, who scored 7 goals against USVI, felt
about being replaced by Willock?) Almost as importantly, coach Lennie Lake
had scouted Barbados against Northern Ireland, and came back with an
important bit of news: Randy Burrowes, Barbados' left wingback, was prone to
push up in attack and not get back in time.
The knowledge didn't do the Sugar Boyz much good in the first half, when
Barbados, playing at home, dominated the action. Boyce didn't play (why
bring him over, then?) but Ifill made his share of impressive moves, running
through the defense, charging into the box, sending in crosses. In front of
goal, though, he couldn't connect, and SKN hung on to keep it scoreless at
the interval. Then Lake played his card, moving striker Keith "Kayamba"
Gumbs (Sabah, Malaysia) over to the right of attack, to put more pressure on
Burrowes' side. In the 77th minute, he got his reward, when Newton ran into
the hole left by Burrowes and delivered a cross for Gumbs, who headed in for
the first goal. Ten minutes later it was Burton who beat Burrowes. He
crossed for Newton--the shot was weak, but took an odd bounce past keeper
Adrian Chase, and St. Kitts & Nevis had a surprise 2:0 victory.
Down by two and forced to go on the road, Barbados was in trouble. There was
no time to get new players, and Boyce, presumably not pleased, had returned
to England. How desperate were they? The team manager, a man with the
wonderful name of Sherlock Yarde, invited a group of "friends of football"
to the stadium to discuss ideas for the second game.
But the dog did nothing in the night. A day before the return leg, starting
sweeper Wayne Sobers was sent home for disciplinary reasons. Striker
Llewellyn Riley and midfielder Norman Forde were injured and couldn't make
the start. And when the team took the field, they were quickly overwhelmed.
Darryl Gomez (Metro Lions, Canada) got the first in the 16th minute, and
Willock followed quickly with two more. Barbados recovered before halftime
with a pair of their own, but in the second half the hosts held them off
with ease, for a 3:2 win and 5:2 aggregate.
All five St. Kitts & Nevis goals had been scored by foreign-based players,
which did not escape the notice of Barbados coach Kenville Layne. More
legionnaires, he said, and we might have won. (Tell that to Mark Boyce!) Of
course, it's not that simple--small Caribbean sides have to find money for
recruitment, and then pick and choose carefully. Resources are limited, and
it's not easy to integrate a set of new players into an established squad.
But St. Kitts & Nevis did it, and now they're on the way to the semifinals
for the first time in history. And just their luck, they've landed in by far
the weakest group. With a genuine longshot chance at the Hexagonal, they
should have the scouts working overtime.
Nicaragua-Saint Vincent & the Grenadines
It was the matchup all of CONCACAF had been waiting for: Nicaragua, the
eternal Central American minnow, and St. Vincent & the Grenadines, the
we-get-slaughtered-every-time-we-play-a-good-team-but-we-always-make-the-group-stage-so-cut-us-some-slack side. Could either team win?
Preliminary friendlies gave no indication. Nicaragua lost 1:5 at Costa Rica,
par for the course. St. Vincent drew at Grenada, lost at St. Kitts & Nevis,
and won at home to Martinique, also par. But other signs seemed to favor
Nicaragua. St. Vincent coach Aide Shaw wasn't happy with his practice field:
it was "bubbly," and goats were wandering on and off the pitch. Plus, he was
missing two important pros, strikers Julian Joachim (Leeds, injured) and
Rodney Jack (Rushden & Diamonds, trying out for Oldham). In Nicaragua, on
the other hand, there wasn't a farm animal in sight, and they had their key
legionnaire, attacking midfielder Mario Acevedo, who plays in Guatemala.
So of course coach Maurizio Battistini left Acevedo on the bench for the
opener. After the game he claimed it was because Acevedo hadn't practiced
much with the team. (Italian coach? Leaving an attacker on the bench?) He
also claimed he'd told the team to keep the ball on the ground, so he had no
idea why they'd used the long ball against a St. Vincent side with a clear
height advantage. Still, Nicaragua had most of the possession--which meant
that St. Vincent's 10th minute goal came on a counterattack, Shandon Samuel
crossing for Renson Haynes to open the score.
The Nicaraguan fans responded positively, pelting the St. Vincent players
with ice, water bags, and mango seeds (don't look at me--that's what it said
in the article). The Nicaraguan players, after a few moments of panic,
settled down and got a 38th minute equalizer from Emilio Palacios. He might
have been offside, of course, but so what? Into the locker room all
square--or it would have been, had not a simple defensive giveaway gifted
Samuel the go-ahead goal for St. Vincent.
Down a goal, Nicaragua came out for the second half--still no Acevedo. But
even Trap himself couldn't have waited much longer. In the 58th minute, the
star finally came off the bench, and immediately Nicaragua began to control
the game. Several chances later, Rudel Calero finally scrambled home an 81st
minute rebound for the second equalizer.
Full-time 2:2, and everyone could be a little bit happy. In their 9th try,
Nicaragua had achieved their first-ever point in a World Cup qualifier. In
their 18th (18th!!!) try, SVG had achieved their first-ever point against a
Central American team (of course, they had never played Nicaragua before).
Battistini promised a more attacking approach in the second game, but we've
heard that from Italian coaches before. Although Acevedo was there from the
start, the setup was a timid 4-4-2. St. Vincent & the Grenadines went to the
long ball, and used their superior speed and goat-dodging ability to
dominate the action. Samuel and Marlon James got early goals only a minute
apart, and it looked like a rout--but you knew it couldn't be that easy. The
game got rough, with St. Vincent piling up yellow cards; eventually they'd
get five (to Nicaragua's zero) over the course of the contest. In the second
half, still down 0:2, Battistini went wild, throwing two more forwards into
the lineup, making a 3-3-4, or maybe just a
10-get-the-damn-ball-in-the-goal-you-guys. And wouldn't you know it,
Palacios got one back in the 60th minute, and the goal gaped for David
Solórzano in the 72nd--but he flubbed it, and Nicaragua ran out of gas. A
few minutes later Samuel got the third for SVG; the fourth, fittingly, was
an own goal, with Jamal Ballantyne's cross deflecting off captain David
Alonso into the net.
The Vincentians rejoiced, with the newspaper Searchlight exulting that they
had defeated a country with a land area 333 times that of SVG. (If that's
the criterion, might as well play Mongolia.) Nicaragua, used to losing by a
lot more, took the opportunity to squabble among themselves. Keeper Sergio
Chamorro quit the side, claiming assistant coach Mauricio Cruz had blamed
him for the loss. Other players accused Battistini of emphasizing technique
at the expense of physical conditioning. Cruz blamed Battistini for being
too defensive. Battistini said he had done his best, was happy with his job,
and expected to coach Juventus someday. (Well, two out of three.)
The bottom line? The amazing incredible SAINT VINCENT AND THE GRENADINES,
World Cup qualifiers supreme, have done it again. Their all-time record in
WCQ knockout ties: eight wins, zero losses. They're in the semifinal stage
for the fourth time in four tries, and with St. Kitts & Nevis and Trinidad &
Tobago in the group, they might--just might--get their very first point. If
that isn't worth watching come August, I don't know what is.
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